Since Sept. 11, the FBI has budgeted tens of millions of dollars to turn its massive collection of computerized case files, memos, tips and phone intercepts from an investigative black hole into a mother lode of predictive intelligence.
If the effort succeeds, by Sept. 11, 2004, it will have replaced today's system--so antiquated and cumbersome that many top FBI executives have never learned to use it--with a high-tech brain that instantly culls years of records and eventually will simultaneously check databanks in other government agencies, public records and the Internet.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 31, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 7 inches; 268 words Type of Material: Correction
Suicide bombers--A story in Monday's Section A on efforts to fight terrorism indicated that a young female suicide bomber who exploded a bomb Jan. 27 in Jerusalem was the first woman to do so. In fact, there have been female suicide bombers before, notably in Sri Lanka.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 09, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 178 words Type of Material: Correction
FBI--A story in Section A on July 29 about fighting terrorism gave the wrong business affiliation for Robert J. Chiaradio. He works for KPMG Consulting Inc., not the accounting firm KPMG. The two companies are not affiliated.
And that's just the beginning.
By Sept. 11, 2011, the FBI hopes to use artificial-intelligence software to predict acts of terrorism the way the telepathic "precogs" in the movie "Minority Report" foresee murders before they take place.
The goal is to "skate where the puck's going to be, not where the puck was," said Robert J. Chiaradio, who until recently oversaw data system improvements as a top aide to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. "We have to get ourselves positioned for Sept. 10, not Sept. 12."
The technology plan reflects a belief that the chief weapon against terrorism will not be bullets or bombs. It will be information.
But intelligence experts, computer scientists and civil libertarians remain skeptical about whether the FBI can--or should--reverse 94 years of entrenched bias in favor of shoe-leather detective work, and turn itself into a high-tech domestic CIA. And they caution that using databases to foretell acts of terrorism is still a science fiction fantasy.
"These techniques assume that the past predicts the future," said Rakesh Agrawal, an IBM Corp. scientist and a leading "data mining" expert. "But what if the future is completely different?"
Before Sept. 11, no one had crashed a hijacked plane into a skyscraper. Before Jan. 27, when a blast ripped through Jerusalem's commercial district, there had never been a female suicide bomber.
FBI leaders insist that effective data mining--sifting investigative knowledge from voluminous electronic files--will overcome such obstacles.
They point out that rudimentary data mining already has become commonplace. Any Internet user can instantly search more than a billion Web pages for, say, "Middle Eastern flight-training students." The popular search service Google ranks results by popularity--pages that receive the most visits and are most often referenced by other pages are listed first--one formula for making sense of more information than a person can digest.
Retail stores analyze data on millions of purchases, then draw conclusions on buying habits to pitch discounts or new products.
"Just as Wal-Mart's trying to figure out what people's buying patterns are, some of that logic can translate into law enforcement," said Mark Tanner, the FBI's deputy chief information officer.
Broad Changes Needed
But to get there will require sweeping changes. Today at the FBI, a comprehensive electronic search requires separate checks of 42 databanks of case files, memos, video footage, mug shots and fingerprints. It's as different from Google as the Web is from government-issue file cabinets, where 1 billion FBI documents still reside.
That will soon change, FBI leaders promise. In the next fiscal year alone, the FBI has requested $76 million to combine and enhance its databases, on top of $730 million more previously budgeted for "Trilogy"--code name for a general technology upgrade, the third try after two failed efforts. The bureau says it will replace paper files and inefficient text-only electronic databases with a "virtual case file" system that will allow rapid, Web browser-like views of video, photos and sounds.
Though technologically feasible, that goal remains distant, given the bureau's primitive technology.
"When I came in I said I wanted it done in a year," Mueller told a Senate committee in June. Now he estimates two to three years. "We do not have the data warehousing, we do not have the software applications [for this] kind of searching."
Still, within the FBI, Mueller is widely viewed as having a better grasp of technology than his predecessor, Louis J. Freeh, and greater drive to make changes--especially after Sept. 11.
"They're on the right track," said Nancy Savage, head of the FBI Agents' Assn. Unlike earlier failed technology efforts, she said, Mueller has involved field agents in the planning and testing.
As a model, experts point to the Defense Department's Global Command and Control System, an immensely complex and far-flung system that analyzes intelligence data, satellite imagery, troop movements, weapon status and a multitude of other inputs from all over the world, yet operates efficiently and effectively. Unlike typical government data systems, built from scratch, the Command and Control system is built largely from off-the-shelf commercial hardware and software and took less than two years to build in the mid-1990s.